Rebel fighters take up position near the military airport outside the rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria on Aug. 21. In rebel-held towns like Azaz, activists are taking on new, risky roles as the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad continues.
Rebel fighters take up position near the military airport outside the rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria on Aug. 21. In rebel-held towns like Azaz, activists are taking on new, risky roles as the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad continues. Youssef Boudlal/Reuters/Landov
On a recent day in the northern Syrian town of Azaz, there's an edgy energy when a pickup truck armed with a heavy machine gun screeches to a halt.
Wild-eyed and high-flving, the young rebels in the truck are happy to be alive after they hit a government helicopter landing at an air base 8 miles outside Azaz.
This rebel-held town is under nightly attack. This lightly armed rebel crew races out to the air base every day to target regime aircraft from hidden sites in the olive groves.
It's a dangerous job — but almost everyone in Azaz has a risky role in the revolution.
A man walks in his house, which was destroyed in shelling by Syrian government forces, in Azaz, northern Syria. Rebels say the town is under nightly attack.
A man walks in his house, which was destroyed in shelling by Syrian government forces, in Azaz, northern Syria. Rebels say the town is under nightly attack. Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Over 18 months, the Syrian revolt has transformed from a peaceful protest movement to a brutal civil war with no end in sight. As the conflict grinds on, activists who once led peaceful demonstrations have now joined rebel brigades and have their own job to do.
From Activist To Active Rebel
Take Shadi Sheik Sana, 28, and Mahmoud Hassano, 22, for example. They run the media center in Azaz, a sprawling compound on a side street where the fighters hang out.
Sana provides live reports on government shelling attacks. His broadcasts — from the rooftops of Azaz — are picked up by Arabic satellite.
Hassano, meanwhile, is a combat photographer. He uploads images to the Web when the rebels fight in Aleppo, the provincial capital, about an hour's drive away. He says he goes there every day and takes photos on the front lines of contested neighborhoods.
When the revolt began, Sana and Hassano were part of a nonviolent movement in Azaz, but like so many young activists, as a peaceful movement gave way to civil war, they joined the rebels. Hassano, a banker's son, was a law student 18 months ago. That's no longer the case.
"I stopped my study — I lost more of my friends. For six months, I don't enter my home," Hassano says. "The revolution changed most things in my life."
Azaz is a small example of a larger picture in Syria, says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says that peaceful protest is over.
"Those activists are still there, but they are now all affiliated with Free Syrian Army groups, and that's a big change," he says.
Rapidly Evolving Revolt
It is also a change in the network of friendships and even in beliefs.
At a farmhouse outside town, the fighters gather for a dinner of grilled meat, salad and soda. They are deeply religious men from rural Syria, more devout and sectarian than before the revolt.
The media team activists, Sana and Hassano, are college graduates who grew up in more moderate religious circles, but they share the goal of bringing down President Bashar Assad's regime.
The revolt is rapidly evolving, says Tabler. It's more militarized now, with the rebels governing towns in villages under their control.
"We have to understand one fact. Those that are taking the shots against the Assad regime will be those that are calling the shots after Bashar al-Assad is gone," Tabler says.
In the early morning, Hassano piles into a crowded van armed with his camera for the drive to Aleppo and another day on the front line.
This is the role he's chosen, documenting a brutal fight against regime loyalists street by street. The revolution has changed him, destroyed his town and pushed most of the residents of Azaz to shelter in the refugee camps of Turkey.
At first, he and other activists thought the revolution would take two or three months. It's been a year and a half now, and he thinks there's still at least six months to go, he says with a nervous laugh.
He drives off in the blazing morning sun, past badly damaged homes and shops and neighbors searching for water and bread to start the day.